When I began my tertiary education, I must admit I had no idea where I would be today. The girl from the dusty streets of eMalahleni surely had coal in her hands, determined to turn it into diamonds. There are many of young people yearning to feed the fire inside of them, wanting to harness it and do the unimaginable. I can see it in the faces of the anxious and excited first-years milling around campus; I can see it amongst the postgrads arriving at institutions early, worrying about deadlines, experiments, chapters to be submitted. What, then, stops us? What leads so many of us to just give up on our grand dreams?

I think it’s a wall; a mental block.

My dream is to ensure that the environment is preserved for future generations, and it might seem strange that I use a stripy little fish, dressed in a Kaizer chief’s jerseyzebrafish-adult, to achieve my dreams. These small fish are quite useful in that they assist scientists to determine whether chemicals will be toxic to people and other organisms. In actual fact, it is their eggs that are used. The fish produce large numbers of these transparent eggs at a time. Being able to look into the egg, seeing the embryo’s heart beating, blood flowing and turning into a proper fish within five days, is what makes them so special. When conditions are less than ideal, the rate at which the eggs hatch, their deformations and ultimately death, are a clear indicator of harmful chemicals and environments.

Zebrafish development
Zebrafish development

Although very useful, breeding these little zebrafish was not easy: they swim quite rapidly, with my first attempt resulting in snail eggs, which I mistook for zebrafish embryos! Learning that their living conditions including, temperature, amount of day and night, as well as the presence of flowers were important, took me a while. Even more surprising was coming to know that the female preferred two males, battling it out over her! Resilience was important in my year-and-a-half struggle to getting my first 200 eggs!! And most of this struggle happened “behind the scenes” with no-one watching my every more; it’s the stuff that you don’t write about in papers or even discuss in presentations… Which reminds me of another trial I had to overcome –my first oral presentation!!! It was awful, probably because I was extremely nervous and afraid of presenting in front of unfamiliar faces and experts in the field. Let’s just say I was relieved when it ended! Granted, with time, improvements have been made lol…

In hindsight, one would say that higher education does not only build you on paper, but also in character. Participating in research has required me to completely get out of my comfort zone. Much of that growth is built on what I do when no-one is watching, when no-one is there to pat me on the back or help solve a problem. But my point to you is, you need to make this choice — to be what you’ve always imagined you could be — even when you’re alone in the lab or behind the computer. This could be the greatest gift you give yourself. 

It is true that no goal that is worth it is achieved easily… Now that the diamond is in my grasp, it is time to polish it into an even more priceless jewel.

After the first storm

I was born in the Eastern Cape, to parents that are both educators. Which kind of explains why I love being in the know. They gave me the name Siphokazi, which directly translates to “a very big gift” 🙂 Awesome is it not? I guess that is what I am to the Nyeleka family, my clan. Growing up, my siblings and I were not allowed to be without a book (school books didn’t count!) and school was non-negotiable, unless of course we were feeling under the weather.

My parents have always encouraged me to pursue postgraduate studies – following in their footsteps. So by the time I graduated with BSc Animal Production Science, I needed very little encouragement to continue with my studies. I was already hooked by academia! With the final persuasion coming from my supervisor, I decided to enrol for an MSc degree in Animal Production Science with special interest in broilers.

Why broilers? You may ask… Well, back in the day my grandmother ran a poultry farm for more than a decade, but she had to shut it down due to ever rising feed costs. The whole experience was frustrating for me because I watched her let go of something she truly loved, particularly because she used the farm as means to give the village women financial security. So when the opportunity came for me to try and find alternative ways to help people like my grandmother, I grabbed it with both hands. Thus, my MSc research focuses on using alternative protein sources in broiler diets, with the ultimate goal of feed cost reduction.

Developing a proposal...
Developing a proposal…

To my surprise, though, the whole process of developing a research concept has been very challenging for me. Developing a proposal was supposed to be as straight-forward as writing that final exam at the end of the year… What I found to be exceptionally challenging was that I knew what I wanted to do, however developing a research concept around it was very tricky. How could I distill my thoughts into an idea that was testable, workable, valuable, in the space of a single degree…?

Preparing for my "babies"
Preparing for my “babies”

What kept me going back to the drawing board was and still is the ultimate goal and that is to make a difference. Giving up would not only be letting myself down, but my grandmother too and that is something I would never be able to live with. I guess it is true that “Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain,” because the happiness I felt after an approved proposal is beyond description.

My second year promises to be an interesting adventure, with more trials and some lab work. I look forward to it, really. Do I still think I can solve the world’s problems? Yes! But like RJ Benjamin says in one of his songs “Changing the world, One day at a time…” I guess in my case its one broiler at a time.